By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Three Colorado police officers and two paramedics pleaded not guilty on Friday to homicide charges in the 2019 killing of Elijah McClain, a Black man subdued by police, placed in a choke hold and injected with a sedative, though he was neither armed nor suspected of a crime.
Attorneys for all five defendants entered pleas of not guilty to manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges. The arraignment was in Adams County, the jurisdiction where the killing took place.
McClain, 23, was walking home from a convenience store in the Denver suburb of Aurora on Aug. 24, 2019, when he was confronted by police responding to a report that he was acting suspiciously, although he was not suspected of having committed a crime.
Police restrained the slight-of-built McClain in a carotid neck hold, commonly known as a choke hold. He was later injected with the powerful sedative ketamine, then lapsed into cardiac arrest and died days later at a hospital.
In a video recording of the encounter from a police-worn body camera, a sobbing McClain could be heard pleading with the officers: "I can't breathe, please stop. I was just going home."
A revised autopsy report issued in September 2022 concluded a ketamine overdose was the cause of McClain's death.
The city of Aurora agreed in November 2021 to pay McClain's family $15 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit.
The McClain case has drawn national attention following the 2020 killing of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, which sparked a summer of global protests over the mistreatment of African Americans and other minorities by U.S. law enforcement.
A public outcry over the McClain death prompted Colorado's governor to order the state attorney general to review the case. A grand jury charged the five men in a 32-count indictment in September 2021, two years after the killing.
The Colorado attorney general also determined that Aurora's police department routinely violated the law by engaging in racially biased policing and excessive use of force.
An independent panel hired by Aurora's City Council found that the officers who stopped McClain had no apparent reason to suspect a crime was being committed and that an initial internal police investigation of the matter was flawed.
The police officers charged are Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema. Rosenblatt was fired after he responded with a "Haha" text message to photos taken by uninvolved officers mocking McClain's death.
In addition to homicide charges, the two paramedics under indictment, Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, were charged with assault for their role in administering the drug injection.
At the time charges were brought, the Aurora Police Association union, called the indictments "hysterical overreaction" and noted an initial probe cleared the officers of wrongdoing.
"Sadly, Mr. McClain died due to a combination of exertion due to his decision to violently resist arrest and a pre-existing heart condition," the union's statement said.
The judge ordered the case split three ways. Roedema and Rosenblatt are due to stand trial together starting on July 11. The two paramedics go on trial Aug. 7, and Woodyard, who administered the choke hold, will be tried alone starting Sept. 18.
(Reporting Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman and David Gregorio)